In the days leading up to the World Cross-Country Championship, which took place in Limerick, Ireland on the last Sunday in March, runners trying the windswept Greenpark Racecourse found it lumpy but free of the log barriers and earthworks that often are erected at continental events to help the land resist the runners. True, there was a dead horse lying across the route—destroyed there after having fallen in the previous week's steeplechasing—but it was soon removed. Thereafter, the runners referred to the location—the last good downhill leading to the finish half a mile away—as Dead Horse Hill.
It was there, after warm rains had descended and the course had been churned to adhesive mud, that defending champion John Treacy of Ireland and Providence College's graduate school of business began to pull away from 1977 champion Leon Schots of Belgium and the rest of the field of 200 on only the second of the five laps that made up the 7� miles of the senior men's race. As Treacy's lead stretched to 40 yards, 25,000 Irishmen along the fence, the largest crowd ever to watch this world championship, burst into full voice. Treacy, as pale as his white shorts and running with a superb cross-country stride in which he planted his heels firmly into the mire for stability, gave no sign of heeding the great cheers that covered him and went rolling on across the nearby River Shannon, although he steadily increased his lead through the third lap to 18 seconds. In response, the now hysterical crowd strained at the barricades, breaking onto the sloppy ground. (Later, the usually immaculate streets of Limerick would be coated with the mud tracked away from the course.) Wild, overcoated men ran along the ropes marking Treacy's way, waving and shouting at him in Gaelic and incomprehensible English. Treacy's wide blue eyes, until now inward and intent on his labor, took on a wary, hunted look. He ran farther from the ropes on the turns, to be away from the reaching arms.
In the stands, Treacy's coach, Bob Amato of Providence, watched, trembling. Treacy's run and the surrounding tumult seemed an affirmation to him, proof that he'd done things right. An unfailingly cordial man, intense behind gold-framed glasses, Amato chooses his runners' races with an eye to enhancing their career-long development, and for many of them that means pointing for the European cross-country runs every spring. Slogging behind Treacy were two other Providence runners, Gerry Deegan (43rd) of Ireland and Danny Dillon (44th) of the U.S.
"I don't believe this interferes with spring track," Amato had said earlier in the week. "The best Europeans all run it and benefit. It's almost ridiculous that college coaches prefer to keep some of our best runners at home for early-season outdoor meets that don't mean anything." A case in point was Oregon's Alberto Salazar, the NCAA cross-country champion and AAU runner-up, who had stayed home to run a 13:59 5,000 meters in a college dual meet. "It's sad to hurt our team like this," said Amato. "We shouldn't be disgraced when we could do so much better."
It wasn't a disgrace, but the U.S. men, led by Craig Virgin in 13th place, finished eighth in the team competition with 341 points, well behind England's winning total of 119. " Salazar should have been here," said Virgin. "He needs to be exposed to this."
As a coach, Amato is a diagnostician who prescribes different sorts of running for different athletes. "Deegan likes to be practically bleeding from the mouth after workouts, he runs so hard," Amato said, "but I've had to adjust to Treacy's not needing that severity. He responds better to relaxed, measured efforts. I'll never forget him when he arrived at Providence at age 17—5'10", 120 pounds and so pale he looked like death warmed over."
Little about John Treacy has changed, except now he says he weighs 130. "He's good over soft ground—what the Irish call a 'mudlarker,' " said Amato. "He floats over the ground, while heavier runners sink and stagger." Thus, the site of the 1978 international, Glasgow's Bellahouston Park, which was an unprecedented quagmire on race day, was fine by Treacy. He stuck to the U.S.S.R.'s Aleksandr Antipov for the first seven miles, then drove on to become, at 20, the youngest man ever to win this event and Ireland's first world champion in any kind of running since Ron Delany won the Olympic 1,500 meters in 1956.
"John was an outsider then, with no pressure from anyone but himself," said Amato. "Not this year." Indeed, the weight of Irish hopes seemed to mount unbearably through the week. Full-page stories on Treacy appeared twice daily, making up in passion what they lacked in information. In Treacy's hometown of Villierstown, near Waterford, the Very Rev. John Morrissey said from his pulpit, "The champion won't let us down," and the town's entire population (210) then rushed out for the 70-mile drive to the race. Runners in Limerick were told again and again by stern-faced children: "You can't run as fast as John Treacy."
They were right. Near the end of the third lap, Treacy had a 100-yard lead and knew he wouldn't fold. "I said to myself, 'It's all over, John, you've won,' " Treacy revealed later. Whereupon he tumbled, slipping in the muck while approaching a sharp turn. The crowd fell into horror-struck silence, but Treacy was up quickly with blackened shins and a fistful of grassy mud, which, chastened, he wiped on his shirt.
Maintaining second place was Bronislaw Malinowski of Poland, the 1976 Olympic silver medalist in the steeplechase, who was deriving a measure of unintended aid from the throng's singing of
. "My grandmother is Irish," he said afterward, "but that wasn't enough today." Still, he would outsprint Antipov for second.